The Issue of Legitimacy

One of the hardest battles an entrepreneur can face is with their own sense of legitimacy.

We put a priority on external indicators of legitimacy; your grades, your degrees, the places you’ve worked and the people you know.

Without these indicators, it can be incredibly hard to stand up and own your own strengths and expertise. We so value authority that we won’t even take it upon ourselves to say, “Yup. I’m the person for that.”

And that’s not altogether a bad thing. If anything, it indicates a certain self-awareness. After all, the only thing worse than utter ignorance would be the Dunning-Kruger effect.

But when you’re an entrepreneur, especially one who’s breaking trail in this new territory of digital economy, there’s nobody around to offer authority. You’re a traveler in bandit country. You can’t afford to be wishy-washy or squeamish.

Best Thing About Entrepreneurialism — It’s Not Fatal

Luckily, unlike bandit country, mistakes won’t kill you. And there are lots of people to learn from (although be careful there. Some don’t know what they’re talking about and others don’t have your best interests at heart). But you learn fast when you’re playing for keeps, so the best thing you can do is keep trying, and if necessary keep screwing up.

It can be scary. Actually, if you’re even half-assed honest with yourself, the looming mountain of stuff you don’t know shit about is enough to give you cold sweats. So how can you be expected to toot your horn about what you do know? Surely that’s only going to highlight your ignorance?

Well, yes, and no. The truth is, like Dr. Spock wrote in his famous book: Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do. I applaud your intellectual integrity by remaining mindful of what you don’t know, but there will always be a vast expanse of things you don’t know. Get used to it.

Instead, focus your efforts on getting the most use out of the things you do know.

In other words, take what you know, and help someone with it. The more you help, the more you’ll know what you know, what you do, and who you can best serve.

In other words, take what you know, and help someone with it. The more you help, the more you’ll know what you know, what you do, and who you can best serve.

When I was writing my first book, I told my coach, “I don’t know if I want to publish it. There’s some stuff I haven’t been able to express right, yet. Maybe I should wait until I know more. I’ll be in a different place, and I’ll have a better perspective to teach from.”

Erin is nothing if not forthright. “So what?” she said. “When you know more, write another book.”

“But what if I get some stuff wrong?”

“Then you’ll fix it in another book. Meanwhile, the people who can be helped with this one, will be.”


The Bottom Line

In my experience, legitimacy isn’t just something you decide. I mean, it’s useful to reason your way to assuring yourself that you have no reason not to feel legitimate, but until the heart’s on board, it doesn’t really stick.

So I’m trying to give you advice on how to bridge that chasm.

Help people. Take what you know, who you are, and what you do, and help people. Sometimes your skills are not what you thought they were, sometimes people’s problems are not what you thought they were. But if you ignore all the determinings and labels about “what you do” and “how you can help” and just focus on solving problems for people, you’ll be left with two very powerful pieces of information.

A) You will know what problems people need to solve.

B) You will know that you can help them solve them.

Effectiveness is the ultimate legitimacy.

Have you struggled with legitimacy issues? How did you solve them?


21 thoughts on “The Issue of Legitimacy”

  1. I think it would be a hoot for you to compose a post about “unskilled individuals who suffer from illusory superiority” with your trenchant wit.
    Anyhow, I do recall having a college student play Recuerdos de Alhambra for me at his first lesson and thinking, “Don’t gasp, don’t sweat, and for god’s sake don’t cry!” He played it fast and accurately and it blinded me. Then I had him play it again, so I could get a hold of myself. Then it hit me. I can HELP with interpretation and technique. I began asking questions and realized he had no idea what he was playing harmonically or melodically. And he needed help with left hand fingerings. It was nice to feel legit through helping this talented student use his skills to make the music more beautiful.

    1. @cjrenzi Eh, you can’t talk to those people. They simply won’t hear it. It’s one of those ‘invisible disabilities’. 😀
      That’s great that you were able to help this guy out; that you believed in your abilities to know that no matter how talented and able he was, you could help him be better.

  2. I love this one, Shanna.  Some days I still go to teach and think, How dare I do this?  I then sit with a child or talk with a parent and realize that I have made a difference.  There is always another book to read or training to attend.  I am sure that even with more letters after my name, I would still be questioning my abilities.  As long as it doesn’t paralyze me, I will use it to move me forward.  It is always good to have those reminders, so many thanks to you.  I am now going out to make matching t-shirts for CJ and me that say “Hey, we’re legit!”

    1. @tammyrenzi hah! great t-shirts. There’s nothing wrong with questioning your abilities. Or rather, you need to balance between questioning them too much and dreadful complacency. Kind of like learning to ride a bike… you might wobble for a bit, but as soon as you get the knack, no one can ever take it away from you.

    2. @tammyrenzi Do you think you could just have MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit” play on an endless loop wherever you go? That may be more effective than a t-shirt you wear periodically. 🙂
      I never hear myself say “How dare you do this!”, but there are variations of that going through my head. And when those thoughts happen, I think, “Quiet brain, or I’ll stab you with a Q-Tip!” (Homer Simpson reference anyone?)
      Perhaps I should type comments on a seriously awesome article written by a seriously awesome woman when I’m feeling less silly? Somehow, I don’t feel like my legitimacy as a serious person or a seriously helpful person is at stake based on this one little comment.

      1. @joeyjoejoe  @tammyrenzi It’s better this way, Joel. I kind of wince for the overly earnest people who comment on Problogger, saying how they solved this very problem with their [namedrop] client and all the information on that is over at their blog. —>link. 
        Poor things always seem to be speed dating instead of interacting authentically.

  3. Ouch – this one hurts. I’m struggling with this pretty much daily… keep getting asked for information/advice on the same  topics and yet keep feeling afraid to sell my services in that same area due to all the other scoundrels who have made such a mess of that particular field… so I’m hiding under other things which make me feel more legitimate. Much to think about here… thanks, as always.

    1. @sarahemily It gets better. Kind of like a snake getting a new skin… you have to grow a new one and then split out of the old one– and it’s  pretty uncomfortable process. 
      It might help to talk it out though. “I’m not like them because….” Points of philosophy and worldview are just as important here as the concrete stuff like “I won’t scare you to make a buck off you”.

  4. You forgot to start this one out, “Dear Erin…” 🙂
    Um, no, but really, you pretty much hit on all my legitimacy issues here, so I don’t have a lot to add. Except that I really have found that doing as much as you can do right now and using that to help the people you can is so useful. Listen to what your clients say about you and how you helped them and then find similar people to help. Keep learning, but don’t be afraid to use what you have, right now.
    Someone I respect, who’s built up her own company based on a skill she never had any formal training for, recently said to me, “If you can do it, then you ARE it.” So focusing on what you really can do is a good first step, I think.

    1. @remadebyhand Maybe I should just start with “Dearly Beloved”– then everyone can partake. 😛
      That was wise advice. It’s so weird from a multipod perspective, because we learn so fast and we can quickly do about 60-80 of what an ‘expert’ can do. Which I think only adds to the legitimacy problem (that last 20% must be REALLY important). And the other half is that it *really* scares the people with only book learning. Book learning doesn’t equal real life. How much of what I spent all that time learning how to do is going to be relevent?

  5. This is a great topic. I definitely agree – help people and be effective with what you know right now – that’s plenty legitimate in my book. None of us ever stop learning, so we just keep working with what we have right now.
    My only question is this:  Does how much you charge change as your experience and knowledge change? Because I see some people online charge some ridiculous fees for their services when they have no experience in what they’re doing. What are your thoughts on that?

    1. @deniseurena I think people can charge whatever they have the balls to charge– as long as they solve the problem they said they will. It’s the consumer who shouldn’t assume that high prices equal high value. I doubt they sell much at that price point, however. Not unless they’re very good at marketing. But you’re right. Makes it hard to grow, doesn’t it?
      That said, it’s also important to be aware of the impression you give. When people perceive you as the ‘cheap’ option, they’re not prepared to be as pleased with your excellent service. At the very least they’ll assume that as good as you are, the person who charges more will be better.

      1. @Shanna Mann Really? So the consumer who is *not* the expert should know better? Sorry, but I think that’s why there are so many scam artists because they blame the victim to free up their own conscience. 
        I think when you’re first starting out, instead of saying “i don’t know what i’m doing” (because of course that wouldn’t go over well)  you can let people know, hey I’m doing this for this price only for 3 months so I can get testimonials is a good way to not charge a ridiculous price they shouldn’t be charging anyways, while still getting the experience they *need* and *should have* before they charge the heftier fee to begin with.

        1. @deniseurena Like I said, they *have* to solve the problem they said they would. If they don’t then it is a scam. 
          But I also think that customers rely too much on value heuristics. They show up, see a flashy site, a hefty price tag, and they think, “Hey, this guy must really be worth it.” And that’s what makes them ripe for the picking. Especially online, you have to get to know the people you plan to work with. That’s why we all have blogs– so people can get to know us, and realize we’re legit, and know what they’re talking about. 
          There’s absolutely an ethical way to say, “I’m charging this to make a name for myself.” And if it helps them get experience that they didn’t have, that’s great. But I don’t think every online business requires that apprenticeship. Some do (coaches, in particular, are bad for simply hanging out a shingle because ‘all their friends come them for advice’) but I don’t think you have an ethical requirement to say “hey, this is my first business” when you’re charging what you need to to replace your old wage. You simply need to solve the problem you were paid to solve.

    2. @deniseurena Great question. I raised my rates after 5 years experience and after taking 3 years of vanity lessons to increase my skills. I also compared my level of education and specific degree to others in my field and realized a lot performance majors are teaching. I have two teaching degrees so I figure I can charge at least as much as they are and I was right, which is very uncommon.
      I also keep in mind who my customers are. They have the means and I remember this when I sched rate hikes.

  6. For me, it was the first time I got paid to do something Cloud Coach related. I had been doing this stuff for free for family and friends for too long, so I forgot what the value was. Getting paid made me feel really good about what I was doing (from a legitimacy standpoint).

  7. I completely agree with your point about getting the heart involved. I’m a logic kind of person, so I love coming up with lists and reasons why certain things should hold true. But self-confidence and legitimacy just aren’t completely about the logic. It helps, but it’s certainly not everything.
    Seeing ourselves fulfilling our objectives by helping others is so much more powerful (and reassuring) than any list could be.

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